Why are black singers expected to be able to sing?

Tom Jackson
Feb 10, 2014


Last night, I watched the Grammy Awards tribute to the Beatles, and as Alicia Keys and John Legend performed "Let It Be," I admired their lovely voices. But it also reminded me of something I've wondered about for a long time. Why is it that black people have to actually be able to sing before they can enjoy a career as a performer?

The world of rock music is filled with white people who can't actually sing but who have somehow been able to make a good living as vocalists. I heard Bruce Springsteen's album of Pete Seeger covers, "We Shall Overcome," played in the office a couple of times. It made my ears hurt. I know it's not the received opinion, but I couldn't get past the fact that Pete Seeger could sing and Springsteen can't. 

As for black performers, I'm not talking about rappers, I'm talking about singers, people who are expected to get behind a microphone and carry a tune. I've been listening to music for decades, and I can't think of a famous black singer who become a superstar in spite of the fact he couldn't sing a lick. 

Who is the black Bruce Springsteen, the black Bob Dylan, the black Joe Strummer, the black Tom Waits? When a black person can become a wealthy and successful singer, without actually being able to sing a note, we'll know that equality has finally arrived and that black people have equal opportunity in show business.  



Re: "Why is it that black people have to actually be able to sing before they can enjoy a career as a performer?"

@ Mr. Jackson:

With all due respect, IMO, many in the world of the late Blues greats contradict your premise.

See: Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Little Walter, et. al.

Watched a few mins. of the tribute. The sweet, syrupy fawning got tiring very quickly.

From the Grave

I think a lot of the current black artists are nowhere near the talent level of Nat King Cole or Johnny Mathis. So Tom, I think that you are dead wrong. In my opinion, very few artists of any race are technically good singers at this point. Having said that...what really matters is the entertainment value they provide. And that has always been determined by the listener. Some may love Mozart and hate Bach. Go figure.

The Rudy

Probably the biggest load of crap I've read in some time. A real White Apologist writing.


@ Mr. Jackson,

Also, by not growin' up around these parts, you missed out on a lot of the "Motown sound" as presented daily on CKLW.


On a transitor radio. All I could pick up.

The Big Dog's back

That was the station back then. Couldn't wait till after school, put the top down on my '64 Chevelle, crank up the music.


Re: "crank up the music."

Gotta luv that 'glorious' AM mono sound.

Threw a reverb in my '65 Mustang to help give it some 'depth.'

The Bizness

Louie Armstrong



Blacks are expected to be able to sing because during slavery which lasted well over a hundred years it was one of the only things black were allowed to do with out being murdered, maimed or raped. They also used it for strength during the brutual ordeal. This question is baited for sure. Starting a race blog?


Agreed...could the writer insert black into each sentence just a little bit more? There are MANY "entertainers" on the color wheel that have NO talent, it is all about how you sell it and how good you look. Personally I think Justin Beiber has no talent just as much as Beyoncé. But they both have built a name and a brand. Doesn't matter the COLOR.


Beyoncé can really sing. Justin is just okay. Justin Timberlake can really sing and dance. I think you misunderstood the actual question. I really can't think of any really famous blacks that can't sing. I think a lot of rappers are short on talent but a lot of them do have other skills.

Dr. Information

rappers....yup, like smoke weed, disgrace women, call each other N's, talk about killing others and not giving a damn what the world thinks. Real positive talent.


This really is a good question. You also make a good point which I really never thought much about but you are right. However, in today's entertainment world you do have to at least be able to perform. Justin Bieber is not a great singer but an ok performer. Usher can do both. It also seems like men hold on to their vocals as they age but women seem to have a tougher time of it especially if they sing soprano. I think it is a great topic of discussion.

No need for some of you to start with the race card talk. Musicians really don't care about color just the music.

Old skool music is the best. Performers either could sing or they couldn't!


I've wondered about for a long time: Why do they all sound like crap? Black, White, whatever. Bring back the 40s and 50s sound. :)


Have to agree about some of the old time blues singers. They couldn't sing but put emotions into the music, and the story the sang made the songs. But for pure singing ability... it was lacking. Still the songs were great. Get right down to it Hendricks singing wasn't that good, but his total music package was/is. Same with some of the oldtime blues singer, male and female.


Re: "old time blues singers."

Once saw Albert King, Bobbie "Blue" Bland & B.B. King in Cleveland.

My spouse and I were one of a handful of white couples in the audience. It was GREAT!

Is there anyone who thinks that the late-great James Brown had a good voice?

My favorites: Lou Rawls and Nat King Cole.

Also, of The Supremes, Mary Wilson had the better voice, but Diana Ross was considered better looking and so was put out front.


I listen to more modern blues than anything else. I heard much of the old time blues but didn't go see them live. Lou Rawls could SING. Just hearing him speak was a pleasure.


Re: "Lou Rawls could SING."

Having lived in Chicago for 25 yrs., I enjoy hearing him talk about "The Hawk" during the lead-in to "Dead End Street."





Why does EVERY black woman sound exactly like every OTHER black woman when they sing? Same with the men. While some have good voices, they ALL SOUND EXACTLY THE SAME!


Gladys Knight has a unique voice and no one sounds like her. Pooh is right. James Brown could not sing a bit but Luther Vandross was awesome. Blues music was more about the lyrics than talent.


Re: "Pooh is right. James Brown could not sing,"

Glad you agree "deerpoop."


Glad I could make your day! LOL!

Ned Mandingo

this is a stupid article. all singers are expected to be able to sing. just like all olympic swimmers are expected to be able to swim.


You couldn't be more wrong about singers.

Common Sense

Perhaps, this is the Sandusky Register's attempt to cover Black History Month.


careful ned! if you keep making so much sense you will not fit in too well around here..


Go back and listen to recordings made 50 to 100 years ago. The diction is far superior, and you can actually know what note they intend.


I think every singer that gets on a stage is "expected" to be able to sing. But, with that said, I take into account the music and lyrics of a singer, or group, not strictly their singing ability. I own probably every Neil Young cd there is, but I've got to say, his voice can make me cringe sometimes. But I love the music.

Dr. Information

Just look at American Idol. Nothing racial about it but all the black singers are now on the show "Where are they now?". Not one has made it big time. Hudson is about the only one who can attempt to say she made it but her 2 songs in the top 10 just isn't "big timing" it yet.


As with all musicians and singers I expect anyone i pay 100 dollars for a concert ticket to be able to sing and put on a show. Not racial in the least, Just if I buy a ticket to see you or purchase your album i expect a song or two, Not the sounds of someone trying to skin a porcupine while naked.
Seen Sam Moore a few years ago at the Moondog ball, Awesome and well worth the money. I have also saw Rammstein which ironically some of their songs sounded exactly like what i would expect if someone was trying to skin a porcupine while nude. But it was still worth the money.

Pterocarya frax...

Shame on you Tom Jackson, for saying Tom Waits cain't sing.


Re: "Tom Waits,"

"Small Change got wasted with his own .38."

Ralph J.

Nate King Cole, Dinah Washington http://rateyourmusic.com/list/dd... and all of those black doo-wop singers from decades past.


One of the BEST concerts I ever attended - twice (in consecutive yrs.)

Mitch Rider and the Detroit Wheels.

The guy and his band played their *sses off for the $5.00 price of admission to a Catholic Church festival, to a largely empty audience, outdoors on a hot and muggy Aug. night.


The Big Dog's back

You have Entertainers and you have Singers.


. . . and sometimes you have both. :)

The Big Dog's back

Dan Fogelberg was a good singer. Brian McKnight too.


I have no clue what this all has to do with Blacks or any other ethnic group being able to carry a tune, but per the attached URL, Rock is still very much alive and paying well, though watching some of the older acts perform I don't know I'd say they're all physically "well". :)

But also per the URL, the name of the game appears to be COUNTRY! Can I get a loud Yee-hah!!


Truth or Dare

It's called stereotyping. Someone mentioned Mow Town. Grew up listening to it as a child. Yep, those old 45's. It instilled in me the love of music and dance All forms. Brown, Beige, Yellow or Red, recording in a studio can make the worst singer sound good. The true test, a live performance. Been to some concerts in my days, one of the best, the Moody Blues and right here at the State Theatre!

Here in the U.S., that "it factor", "star quality" seems to be more about physical appearance and age, less about true God-given talent. She isn't "black", but Susan Boyle knocked that theory out of the park.

Truth or Dare

Sorry about that, that would be Motown.

Nam Vet

I'm 69 years old and the best singer in my opinion is and always will be Roy Orbison. Rest his soul. Elvis said it too. End of story.


As a professional musician, I always wondered why the bar is held so high for instrumentalists (unless they play 100% of their notes in tune, with a good tone/sound, they stay unemployed), but so low for vocalists. Pop singers often sing with a stunning lack of fundamentals, often have really poor tone and awful intonation. It's so prevalent that software has been developed to correct poor pitch/intonation by vocalists in real time during performances.

Having seen hundreds of choir performances and HS musicals, I'd say that every HS in America probably has several kids in their choir who are better singers than some of the biggest names in the recording industry today.

The Hero Zone's picture
The Hero Zone

^^^ 100% this! ^^^

Dr. Information

Country music is about as real as it gets.

Kottage Kat

Marvin Gaye
Saw Stepping Fetchet (sp) in New Orleans. That man could sing, as well as dance.
Jazz and Blues, inspired so many.
Johnny Mathes, Motown rocked.
Reggae is good.
Love music very eclectic

Kottage Kat



Barry White, you're my first my last, my everything.

Kottage Kat

Neil Diamond
Bebe winans
Ray Charles
Lou Christie
Gene Pitney
5th Dimension
Del Shannon
Isaly Brothers
Mills Brothers
Jackson 5
Billie Holiday
Lennon Sisters
Crazy Googhanheim
All good, all colours

BushelBob's picture

During Motown's heyday, African-American media entrepeneurs had not yet been eclipsed by the six white billionaires who control mass media today: Murdoch, Rothschild, Rockefeller, Bronfman, Newhouse and Redstone. The 'expectation to sing' you noted is a billionaire-constructed expectation. Check out alternative markets for music such as contemporary YouTube singers to note the social dynamics minus the six billionaires.